For the first time in recent memory, Deschutes County has more registered Democrats than Republicans.
The edge is only three voters, but it signals a shift in political party preference that has been growing for several years, party officials say.
Voter registration numbers from the Deschutes County Clerk’s Office show 42,018 registered Democrats and 42,015 registered Republicans. Both parties are outnumbered by 47,517 unaffiliated voters, an increase due to the Motor Voter law that makes voter registration automatic at DMV offices when getting or renewing a license.
Democratic voters have been closing the gap on Republicans in Deschutes County for the past few years. Since 2015, Democrats have added 10,984 voters to their count and Republicans have added 5,531.
“That trend has been growing pretty steady over the past decade,” said Judy Stiegler, a former Democratic state representative from Bend and current political science instructor at Central Oregon Community College and Oregon State University-Cascades.
Stiegler, who moved to Central Oregon 41 years ago, said she remembers the region was mostly Democratic at that time because of the union timber jobs in the region.
“There was a lot of union activity,” Stiegler said. “If you looked at the numbers from back then, there would have been more Democrats than Republicans.”
Stiegler points to the population growth in Deschutes County that has led to the shift in politics. The county has grown from about 115,000 people in 2000 to more than 191,000 today, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
“Over the last 20 years, we have had a migration into Central Oregon,” Stiegler said. “It’s probably a lot of people who may be of a more progressive nature.”
Paul deWitt, former chairman of Deschutes County Republicans, agrees the growing population has brought a new political demographic. He has seen an influx of people from traditionally Democratic cities, such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, Portland and Seattle, moving to Deschutes County.
“I think it’s mostly due to migration to this area by folks who are — unfortunately in my view anyway — bringing their politics with them,” deWitt said.
More registered Democrats also means more Democratic politicians have been elected locally in recent years. That is something deWitt and other local Republicans hope to change by encouraging more Republican candidates to run for local boards and commissions.
He also sees an opportunity to attract the large population of unaffiliated voters in the county.
For one, deWitt wants to remind unaffiliated voters that they can only vote for nonpartisan candidates and measures in primary elections. To vote for a Democratic or Republican presidential candidate in the May primary, unaffiliated voters have to be registered as a member of the the party.
“It’s an opportunity to get a lot of these voters to vote,” deWitt said.
Jason Burge, chair of the Deschutes County Democrats, said his party is also focused on the unaffiliated voters to help continue the Democratic shift in the county.
“As a party, our interest is trying to identify some of the voters who have been registered automatically and see if they have any party preference,” Burge said.
When Burge moved to Deschutes County in 2012, he recalls Republicans had about 6,000 more registered voters than Democrats. It has been a steady shift since, he said.
“It’s not based on ebbs and flows and events that are happening,” Burge said. “It’s been a very steady growth, and it has been consistent the entire time.”
A benefit to more Democratic voters has been more candidates willing to run as Democrats, Burge said.
“There has been a nice cause and effect,” Burge said. “As the demographics shifted, it makes it easier to find strong candidates interested in running.”
Burge doesn’t anticipate seeing a shift back anytime soon.
“It’s been a very long, stronghold Republican county for quite a while,” he said. “The shift at the county level has been steady.”